Georgian military highway
The Georgian Military Highway runs north from Tbilisi through the Greater Caucasus Mountains to Vladikavkaz 207 km away. This ancient passage over the Caucasus is a spectacular adventure. It had only evolved into a bridle track by the time the Russians finally converted it, by the Herculean efforts of 800 soldiers, into a carriage road in 1783. The dirt track through the challenging mountain terrain was only properly engineered as a road in the early 19th century with the Russian annexation of the Caucasus.
In 1829 Pushkin followed this route, as did many other great Russian writers, such as Lermontov, Gorky, Tolstoy and Mayakovsky, all inspired in various ways by the experience. In 1846 Shamyl attempted to close the highway in his rebellion against Russia, and it was his failure which persuaded the other tribes of the northern Caucasus not to join him, though his rebellion continued until 1864. The route finally lost much of its importance with the opening of the railway via the Caspian coast in 1883. About 100 years later the Roka Tunnel opened between South and North Ossetia, although given the instability of these regions it has not become a major through route.
The Georgian Military Highway is the main artery connecting Georgia to Russia, a route that has served as an important trade link between Europe and Asia from early times. Strabo (63 BC-AD 21) mentions the dangerous mountainous route in his Geography, and Pliny (AD 23-79) describes how the Romans erected the Caucasian Gates (Porta Caucasia) in the Darial Gorge. At the height of Georgia's power in the 12th century the route was of significant strategic importance both militarily and economically, and new towns grew up along it. Moslem incursions from the 13th to the 17th centuries weakened the country and the possibility of contact with the north until Herekle II, King of eastern Georgia, initiated the negotiations with Russia that ultimately led to Georgian-Russian unification in 1801. Recognizing the need for a more efficient means of communication, Alexander I appointed General Alexei Yermolov (1772-1861) commander of the Russian forces in the Caucasus, to be responsible for building a new road. Work in the Darial Gorge alone lasted five years, and in 1817 the entire route was finished. General Yermolov was heralded at the time as the builder of the Russian Simplon. The name of the Georgian Military Highway originates in its 19th-century military associations and not from anything bellicose in the post-revolutionary era.
As the major route through the Greater Caucasus, the highway crosses important historical provinces and is the jumping-off place to others. Leaving the Mtkvari and Aragvi river valleys in Kartli, the road goes through the present Dusheti region (specifically, historic Mtiuleti) before crossing the Jvari Pass (Krestovy Pereval or Cross Pass; the highest point at 2,379 meters) into Khevi and the town of Kazbegi. From there the road continues for another 17 km (10.5 miles) to the bridge over the Tergi (Terek) River known as Eshmakis Khidi (Devil's Bridge), which marks the boundary between Georgia and North Ossetia in Russia.
After leaving Tbilisi, roads branch northwest off the highway into the historic provinces of Ertso-Tianeti, Pshavi, and Khevsureti. (The isolated province of Tusheti lies considerably east of the highway.) As with the mountain region of Svaneti, the more remote provinces of Khevsureti and Khevi are of particular interest to climbers, nature lovers, and aspiring ethnographers. The Military Highway is sufficiently well travelled that you're unlikely to see many vestiges of authentic folk practices in its immediate environs, unless you happen to come upon a village having a holiday.
A trip to Georgia would not be complete without exploring at least one of the mountainous provinces of the Greater Caucasus to get a sense of the awesome quality of this 648-km spine that historically has separated Europe from Asia. Georgians themselves regard the area as the heart and soul of their country, the place from which so many of their traditions derive: the cult of the ram, the forms of lavish hospitality, the importance of friendship, and the demands of honor. Living and working with the shepherds in the highlands, returning to the simple life of sleeping rough in alpine meadows wrapped in one's nabadi (burka) is an ideal to which many Georgians of the valley aspire. They wax rhapsodic about it with the same wistfulness as a New Yorker yearning for the wide open spaces of Wyoming. Neither Georgians nor New Yorkers have much of a chance of implementing the dream. Alexander Kazbegi (1848-1893), the famous 19th-century Georgian writer who eventually did take up the pastoral life, depicts in his numerous stories the ethos of the tribesmen of these mountains. Other writers and artists whose experience of this world have come through traveling along the Georgian Military Highway include Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Mayakovsky, and Gorky. You will have no difficulty understanding their enthusiasm.
The following sights, towns, and villages are what can be seen with a minimum of effort either along the highway or on a nearby connecting road. Any car with trust-worthy brakes will be able to cover the entire length of the highway without difficulty. The most difficult driving is the series switchbacks you'll encounter beginning at the village of Kvemo Mleti (112 km from Tbilisi) until you're over the Jvari Pass.
Unfortunately, due to the continued closure of the Russian-Georgian border, the route is currently a dead end, but Kazbegi, the last town, is a superb base for walking, climbing and bird-watching. The Georgian Military Highway still serves as a link to the province of Khevi (The Valley), around Kazbegi, which lies on the northern slope of the Caucasus, and offers the easiest access from Tbilisi to the high mountains. Unfortunately the hillsides are heavily eroded in this area, due largely to overgrazing but also to tourism, and the road is in an appalling state for much of its length, especially north of Gudauri. It suffers greatly from snow and ice and the pass is frequently closed in winter.
Moving alog the road
The highway starts with a flyover junction just before km28 on the highway from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, immediately to the northwest of Mtskheta. From here it's 58km to Pasanauri, 124km to Kazbegi, and 168km to Vladikavkaz in Russia.
The highway runs along the right/west bank of the Aragvi, in a wide valley between sandy foothills; just before km3 a side road turns west to Tsilkani, where there's a church built as a basilica in the 5th and 6th centuries and remodelled as a dome church in medieval times. Originally founded by one of the Syrian Fathers in the 4th century, this was one of the first churches in Georgia, and was famous for its icon of the Virgin painted by St Luke on a board from Christ's cradle. This road continues to the Mukhrani Valley, where champanska is produced on what was the Bagration family estate.
At km 15.5/123.5 another road leads 6km west to Lake Bazaleti, formed according to legend by the tears of the Georgians at the death of Tamar's child; it's too full of weeds for swimming, but fishing is popular. To the north of the lake is Bodorna monastery, where the medieval dome Church of St Mary (rebuilt in the 18th century) has a row of hooks outside for hanging sacrificed sheep, and caves in oddly shaped yellow cliffs were used as refuges from the Tatars. Further north (10km from the lake) is Dusheti, which was the capital of the Aragvi princes in the 17th century and received a municipal charter late in the 18th century; now it's just a small village with some Art Nouveau buildings. From here it's 5km back to the Georgian Military Highway, at km 19.
At km26 a minor road turns right to follow the Pshavis Aragvi Valley to Khevsureti; the Georgian Military Highway rises above the right bank to pass the Zhinvali Dam at km28; this has flooded the area of the confluence of the Aragvi and the Pshavis Aragvi, where the forested mountainsides begin to press in on either side. Companies from Tbilisi are now organising rafting trips on the Pshavis Aragvi.
The highway climbs along the hillside, then drops from km35 to cross a modern viaduct and reach the amazing churches of Ananauri just before km37 (ie: after kml02 from the north).
The road continues between thickly wooded hillsides that Fitzroy Maclean found rather reminiscent of Perthshire. Small villages offer the occasional cafe while footbridges give access to walks on the eastern side of the valley. At km53 you'll see the first of the remaining watchtowers, which once stood at every curve in the valley, providing a relay chain of signal stations for times of danger. The only town between Mtskheta and Kazbegi is Pasanauri, which consists of just two streets, Rustaveli (northbound) and Kostava (southbound) between km59 and km60. This is a climatic resort at 1,014m, where the White (Tetri) Aragvi, the main river, is joined by the Black (Shavi) Aragvi from the northeast; the water of the Black Aragvi is often noticeably darker, with the two flowing side by side before merging.
Continuing northwards in the Mtiuleti district, the valley is still relatively wide, with a good new single carriageway alongside the old highway as far as Gudauri. Near km66 you'll see a watchtower high to the left; at km73 you'll see one to the right and another pair ahead, and near km74 there's a tower to the left and a chapel and then a tower to the right.
Continuing north, there's another tower to the west, and after Zemo (Upper) Mleta (1,556m), where there's a spring and roadside stalls selling drinks, woolly socks and sheepskin hats, the road climbs 640m up the Mleta cliff, with the help of six hairpin bends. As you climb, the High Caucasus finally comes into sight, first the Red Mountains, and then the Seven Brothers, both massive ranges of red volcanic rock. Near the top (just after a roadside shrine at a hairpin) is a viewing platform with metal rails giving great views as you lean out over the abyss.
At the top is Gudauri, a scattered Ossetian village which is, at 2,196m, the highest settlement on the Georgian Military Highway, and one of Georgia's main ski resorts.
From Gudauri the road (in awful condition) dips briefly down and passes through an avalanche gallery into the Devil's Valley, which as the poet Lermontov explains is really a mistranslation of Frontier Valley; above to the right is the original Russian road, which makes a pleasant short hike. To the left of the road a large viewing platform looks over the 'Stone Chaos' of the Gudaur Abyss and the 'zebra-striped' summit of Gud-Gura.
From here it's not far up to the Jvaris Ughelt or Cross Pass, better known in Russian as the Krestovy Pereval (2,379m, 127km from Tbilisi); open only from May to November, it's the highest point of the route and there are many fine descriptions, notably by Lermontov and Dumas, of the struggle to cross the pass in foul weather. To the east of the present road stands the cross erected by Yermolov in 1824, replacing the so-called Tamar's Cross, in fact erected by King David the Builder; this stands on the old road, rather higher than the present one, and is visible from the Devil's Valley at the top of a steep rise.
Descending the Bidara Valley into the watershed of the Tergi (Terek in Russian) River, you'll pass five avalanche galleries, which traffic uses only in winter. The fact that the road surface is in just as appalling a state inside the galleries as outside indicates a long history of neglect. The alpine meadows are interrupted by rocks stained red by the sweet mineral waters that are common here; the bearded vultures seem to dye their 'beards' red by drinking the iron-rich water.
Almasiani (1,960m), the first part of the village of Khobi, lies to the left of the road at a police barrier, by some caravan-cafes. This is the start of a superb hike (signed in English at the junction) to the west up the Truso Gorge (nicely described by Tony Anderson as 'a geological fantasy on the duel between water and rock'), which follows a dirt track alongside the Tergi through the villages of Nogkau, Shevardeni, Okrokana (Ukrakani in Ossetian), Ketrisi, Abano and Resi. You may get a ride for the first couple of kilometres, after which only 4x4 vehicles can continue through the gorge and into the lovely wide upper valley. This is wonderfully spectacular scenery, with the steep slopes of this glacial valley on the southwestern flank of Mount Kazbek rising high above the defensive towers of the villages; there are many more mineral springs at the foot of the cliffs to the south side, especially between Okrokana and Ketrisi, and at Abano (ie: Bath, about 25km up the valley), where there's a mineral lake. The valley is an excellent spot to see bearded vultures and other alpine specialities like wallcreepers. There's good camping here too, unlike the Sno Valley where you allegedly need to keep a fire alight all night to keep wolves away.
The next village by the road (148km from Tbilisi) is Sioni, where you'll see the church and watchtower on a crag overlooking the road more or less opposite the turning to a bridge to the villages across the river.
Another 4.5km brings you to Kazbegi, at 1,797m and 153km from Tbilisi; this is the only town in Khevi province (or Mokhavia) and the only place with anything resembling shops and accommodation. However, with a population of just 4,000 and relatively little through traffic to Russia, commercial opportunities are inevitably limited, although it's worth looking for the local woollens, such as socks and hats.
The Georgian Military Highway continues north from Kazbegi on the left/west bank of the Tergi, passing through Tsdo (1,767m) and then Gveleti (1,850m), where griffon vultures nest on the cliff; just southwest of Gveleti you'll see a fine waterfall. The road crosses to the right bank here, but immediately before the bridge a track turns left to continue along the left bank, then follows the Amali Valley as a good hiking trail through subalpine birch forest to reach the Devdoraki Glacier. This is the lowest of all those in the Caucasus, its tongue reaching an altitude of just 2,300m; the trail is 9km each way, taking a minimum of four hours return.
Beyond the Zemo Larsi border checkpoint the highway enters the Daryal Gorge, its wildest section, where the road runs for a 12km on a narrow shelf below granite cliffs up to 1,500m high where lammergeyers nest. The gorge takes its name from Dar-i-Alan or 'Gates of the Alans', named after the forefathers of the Ossetians, who arrived here in the 5th century AD. Before that it was known as the Sarmatian gates or the Iverian gates, the point at which Pompey's advance into Asia was halted. At the southern entrance to the gorge, to the west of the road, are the ruins of the Daryal fortress, popularly known as Queen Tamar's Castle, although it's far older than the 12th century. It was restored by the Russians and successfully held by General Gurko against Shamyl's forces in 1846.
The frontier between Georgia and Russia at Zemo Larsi was closed by Russia in July 2006. It is currently not possible for foreigners to cross even with a Russian visa. The old border crossing is at Chertov Most (Devil's Bridge), about 20km beyond Kazbegi, and the highway ends after 168km at Vladikavkaz ('Rule the Caucasus'), founded in 1783 to be the base for the subjugation of the Caucasus. It was renamed Ordjonikidze after the Georgian revolutionary Sergo Ordjonikidze, Stalin's hatchetman, whose brutality horrified Lenin and who was in the end killed off by Stalin himself.